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They've Come to See the Elephant in a Kinder, Gentler Mood

Scene: No one's spiked the punch with mean spirits at this quadrennial party. The only real display of fire seems to be in the San Diego sunsets.


Isn't that, ah, George Shultz over there? . . . That's Ollie North, maneuvering to get in the picture next to CNN president Tom Johnson. . . . And John Sununu, who joined the other side and became a journalist, of sorts. . . . Phil Gramm, moving through the adoring Georgia delegation, smiling, joking, pressing flesh as though it were still primary season. . . . And Lamar Alexander, wandering all but unnoticed among the crowds, the entourage that followed him through the presidential primaries replaced by his wife.

Behind the convention center, where the value of row after row of yachts no doubt exceeds Equatorial Guinea's national budget, the Gunowners of America were conducting a reception on a pontoon boat operated by Canvasback, an organization that takes medical teams to Micronesia.

"As I've told the media about 15 times this morning," the gun owners' executive director, Larry Pratt, was telling a small group, "I think we're going to have trouble no matter who is president. I mention this in case my quotes don't come out right in the media."

"They won't," offered the vessel's captain, Jamie Spence. "But we've got a three-strikes-and-you're-out group coming on board later and I'm going to tell them, Larry, you said three strikes is a great idea--two blanks and a live round."

Many of the 3,800 delegates and alternates already had straggled into the convention center by the time Pratt's reception began. As a group, 90% were white, two-thirds were male, 30% listed their occupations as "business." The delegates' ages ranged from 18 to 93 and averaged 49.

"Actually there's more enthusiasm here than I thought there'd be," said former Montana Gov. Tim Babcock, who has attended every GOP convention since Dwight D. Eisenhower was nominated in 1952. "I was worried about that but I think Jack Kemp has injected some excitement."

Although TV often gives the impression that delegates sit attentively through long, numbing sessions, hardly anyone was paying heed Monday morning as speaker after speaker droned on. Hundreds of seats were empty, the aisles were filled with milling delegates and journalists and the din of conversation filled the hall. Maryland's delegate section had only one occupant, Janet Henry, her white cowboy hat bedecked with GOP buttons. Henry, an AIDS activist who is HIV positive, was asked where the rest of the delegation had gone. "I was wondering the same thing," she said.

In the convention center's subterranean parking lot, nearly 1,000 foreign journalists are trying to make sense of American politics for their readers. To assist them, the U.S. Information Agency provides filing facilities and a staff of researchers. What, someone asked, was the origin of the elephant and donkey as symbols of the two parties?

"I had that question in 1992, so it wasn't tough," said the press center's director, Arthur Green. The answer: the donkey emerged during Andrew Jackson's campaign in 1837. The elephant, drawn by Thomas Nast, appeared on the cover of Harper's Weekly in 1874.

"A convention," said Masaaki Muramatsu, a correspondent for Japan's Nikkei (daily circulation 3 million), "seems to go beyond politics. It's more of a celebration and a festival than I thought it would be. But it's very valuable to understanding America to see this atmosphere."

And he began to type the lead paragraph for his story: "Robert Dole has narrowed the gap to 12 points in his attempt to win the American presidency from Bill Clinton."

Even in Japan, it seems, U.S. politics is best described as a horse race.

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